From the Inaugural Address of Obama

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in April 2009)

America’s ascension in economic, military, and political strength comes out of its commitment to research in basic and applied sciences and using  the findings to make money through profitable technology, not worrying too much about whether the technologies are useful or even ethical.

In this endeavor, thousands of scientists and researchers have spent, and continue to spend, the most productive years of their careers to continuously improve our understandings of Nature’s mysteries. On  top of this heap of Seekers of Truth are those who receive global recognitions for their work. Needless to say, without the big heap, there is no peak.

That is why researchers from the American soil (both as native-born and as immigrants) have dominated Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, and economics throughout the 20th century.

So, there was no need for a US president to declare in his inaugural speech the nation’s commitment to science. Yet, that is what President Obama did: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”

He was alluding that in the last twenty-five years dogma borne out of deeply held religious beliefs took precedence over science in national debates on applying newer insights in science and discoveries in technology to modern life.

Since science in its essence is value-neutral, it is necessary for people to raise questions on how we apply science to make a profit, or worse still, to cause pain and suffering on helpless people as in wars – by using sophisticated guided missiles, land mines, and chemical warfare, and damaging the environment with chemical defoliants.

It is natural for people – officials of organized religions, including religious believers, and even unaffiliated citizens — to be uncomfortable when new findings in science and technologies challenge our deeply held beliefs. That is precisely what scientific discoveries are supposed to do: Challenge our beliefs on the basis of improved understanding of Nature. 

But when such discomforts get organized through selective opposition on the basis of religious/political dogma, it carries less moral weight.  

As a matter of fact, throughout history in the Western world,
almost every new scientific discovery was opposed by its religious orthodoxy of that era. Galileo’s assertion in 16th century that earth revolved around sun (originally suggested by Copernicus) was so disturbing to the Vatican’s orthodoxy that he was excommunicated. Only in 20th century, the Vatican decided to correct itself. 

Similarly, the church opposed initially anesthesia, blood transfusion, organ transplants, in vitro fertilization, and now embryonic stem cell research, supposedly on ethical grounds, but actually dosed heavily on dogma. The church also denies the findings of evolutionary biology.

As expected, President Obama in early March issued an executive order ending the President George W. Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research.  Embryonic stem cell research has the potential for finding cures for several chronic and denerative diseases that currently need expensive life-long medications and treatment or no treatment at all.

Often, losing the argument, the religious orthodoxy embraced science.  Where it did not embrace, its opposition eventually became irrelevant, as in the case of use of contraceptives. I wonder why religious orthodoxies has no stand on the use of Viagra by senile men.

Given this atmosphere, it was refreshing to hear President Obama declare, “We will restore science to its rightful place… …”

The second phrase that stood out was when President Obama
talked about faith.  This is what he said:  “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers……”  

President Obama included nonbelievers among the people of faith, who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful God who occasionally unleashes his wrath on man. As an agnostic, but practicing Hindu, I was fascinated not by Obama including Hindus, but by Obama including nonbelievers.

In the abstract, one can argue that a dogmatic nonbelief itself is a belief. For now, I set aside this verbal gymnastics. 

In the last twenty-five years in the US, an impression is created subliminally in political and social discourse that nonbelievers, though not evil, are amoral, not guided by any morality. But as we have seen repeatedly, evil and the absence of moral and ethical compass are equal-opportunity human traits. Throughout history, more violence and evil were let loose by believers among themselves and towards others as well.

And often, leaders of organized faiths in all religions have displayed total lack of ethics and morality that they preach for others. As a matter of empirical observation, many nonbelievers and even atheists lead very ethical lives. And many theists live diabolically given to debauchery.

For many in the West and Indians as well, it is incomprehensible that you can have religions without the need for God as the fulcrum. Two such religions are very old, at least five centuries years before Christ. Both these faiths have very sophisticated works on its doctrines, ethics, and even dogma. And both are born in India.

One is Buddhism, founded by Gautama Siddhartha in the fifth century BC, after his decades-long search for answers to human misery. Gautama Buddha’s teachings are so sophisticated that he completely bypasses the need for God, neither denying nor affirming the idea of God. Buddhism’s early works on the 8-way path does not invoke God, does not plead for God’s mercy, and does not supplicate God for not unleashing his wrath.

The Buddha’s central message is: Life is difficult, transient, and full of pain. Sarvam duhkham sarvam anityam.  But the Buddha was not a pessimist. Far from it. He offeres a way out giving a general path out of misery that one needs to travel by oneself, something he traversed himself.

Jainism, consolidated in the 6th century BC by Vardhaman Mahaveera, the 24th Tirthankara* in the Jain tradition, is atheistic in its essence. Its idea in karma is simply this: “Hey Guy, You find yourself in the ditch mostly because of your own actions. Now you need to get out of the ditch. Many others have done it. You can do it too. While others can be your inspiration, only you can get yourself out. The effort has to be yours.”

Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism all believe in Karma. Buddhism and Jainism, however, without the need for invoking and believing in the idea of God, show people a way out of misery with their own self-effort. 

Even within the Hindu fold, non-belief is never condemned. As a matter of fact, non-belief is a well-accepted idea within the Hindu fold.  Sankhya, one of the six schools (Shad-darshanas, or Six Views) in the Hindu tradition, for example, is atheistic. 

If you associate people’s morality and with their faith in God, how do you explain this?: The atheistic Jainism is totally committed to nonviolence not only toward other human beings, but also towards all other living beings. Even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was influenced by his Gujarati upbringing, which is a melding of Jainism and Hinduism.

And in many parts of India, even today, Jain charities are well known in hospice care, and running hospitals and educational institutions.

Ido not know how many US presidents have come out so openly
embracing nonbelievers.  But in an environment where religious and political establishments were demonizing nonbelievers in their rhetoric, it was refreshing to hear President Obama’s nuanced approach to belief.

*Tirthankara in Sanskrit means “He who has crossed over the ocean of samsara or Life”, and Vardhamana Mahavira is the 24th Tirthankara. — END


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